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Remember When?


October 21, 2021

40 YEARS AGO • OCTOBER 8, 1981


Talking with J. Byron Sanders is like reading the rough draft of a history book. The stories haven’t been organized yet, but they sure are interesting.

Sanders, who lives on Harlow Road, is related to Colonel Wilbur Fisk Sanders, after whom this county is named. He isn’t sure what the relationship is, adding that his father explained it to him but he has forgotten.

Byron Sanders was born in the Bitterroot in 1908. He spent his boyhood there, working on the family farm. He first learned of his relation to Colonel Sanders after meeting the colonel’s grandson, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, in a wrestling class at the University of Montana. Sanders told his father of the meeting, and his father explained the lineage to him.

Sanders’ family first came to Montana in 1869. Seventy-seven of them made the move from Oregon to the Stevensville area. Sanders has a newspaper article from the Stevensville Northwest Tribune in which his father and another relative told about the Indian trouble in 1877. They remembered standing on a roof at Fort Owen watching the Nez Pierce renegades across the Bitterroot River.

Sanders relates another story, that his grandfather used to travel to Oregon from the Bitterroot. Frequently he would camp on the land of a “Pennsylvania Dutchman” who owned 160 acres and a spring in the area Spokane now occupies. Times were tough financially and the Dutchman was struggling to make it. During one of the grandfather’s visits, the Dutchman decided he’d had enough. He traded his property for a mule team and a wagon and left the area with Sanders’ grandfather. Within months Spokane started booming and land prices skyrocketed. Sanders’ grandfather often remarked that was the most expensive mule team and wagon he’d ever known.

When asked about Col. Sanders’ involvement with the Montana vigilante movement, Sanders replied that they had no choice. Robbers and murderers were masquerading as the law. Sanders said he doubted the need for vilgilanteism today, adding, “There’s laws today.”

Sanders “political” ancestry runs to an international level. His great-great-grandfather was an heir to the French throne. But with the turmoil in France at the time, he felt he had little chance of surviving, let alone gaining the throne. So, he fled to America.

Sanders does not hold a family monopoly on famous ancestors. His wife, Dorothy, whom he married in 1935, is descended from Lyman Hall, Georgian signer of the Declaration of Independence.

After spending three quarters at UM, the depression forced Byron to leave school and go back to help on the family farm.

Eager for work and being a self-proclaimed “brush buzzard,” Sanders began a year in the woods by fighting forest fires in the State Forest Department. Sanders said logging was just getting started again after the “big fire” of 1910 and the end of World War II.

Sanders laments the changes in Sanders County in the time he’s been here, saying that there’s more people and less game.

He went on to say that he “can’t get enthusiastic about the progress we’re making” in general.

Sanders cannot agree with those who say beauty can be found in cities. He said he thought that was a Sanders family trait. “We landed in Charleston, North Carolina before the Revolutionary War and just kept moving along.” Sanders great-great-grandmother, who was born before the Revolution, moved with the clan to Oregon when she was 90 years old.

Sanders is proud of the fact that he has every issue of Mother Earth News Magazine ever published.

Asked about Solar Living Magazine to which he also subscribes, Sanders said he has been interested in solar energy ever since reading about solar experiments in the Southwest in the early 1900s. He feels that the U.S. is going to have to turn to solar energy “if we want to leave anything for our grandchildren.”


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